A Customs officer, without any knowledge of possible criminal activity, inspecting a sack of incoming international mail from Thailand. He spotted eight envelopes that were bulky and which he believed might contain merchandise. He opened the envelopes and found controlled substances inside.
Whether Customs officials must establish a level of suspicion before searching international mail?
No. The Customs official must only demonstrate a suspicion that the package contains merchandise
The Court noted “searches made at the border, pursuant to the longstanding right of the sovereign to protect itself by stopping and examining persons and property crossing into this country, are reasonable simply by virtue of the fact that they occur at the border, should, by now, require no extended demonstration.” In the case at hand, Congress authorized the Customs officer to act through Title 19 U.S.C. § 482, which states, in part “[A]ny of the officers or persons authorized to board or search vessels may…search any trunk or envelope, wherever found, in which he may have a reasonable cause to suspect there is merchandise which was imported contrary to law….” At the time the Customs officer opened the letters, he “knew that they were from Thailand, were bulky, were many times the weight of a normal airmail letter, and ‘felt like there was something in there.’” The Court found that the officer was in compliance with the statute in that he established a reasonable ‘cause to suspect’ that there was merchandise or contraband in the envelopes.
431 U.S. 606, 97 S. Ct. 1972 (1977)